untitled fiction – part 1

note & disclaimer: while i’m away on my very silent, devoid of communication, meditation retreat, the magical powers of the future scheduling function will allow me to roll out piecemeal my first attempt since college, i think, at writing a piece of (unfinished, unedited, unrefined) fiction. i was inspired by last year’s nanowrimo (that i learned about from the lovely t), during which these words were penned. until now, i’ve been the sole creator and audience of this loopy tale (as sole as one who has lived in the world, had conversations and experiences with people, and carries those moments around, some of which are sure to seep into other moments, conversations, experiences, and writing). but i plan to attempt nanowrimo once again this november so clearing this out of the mental hopper might be a good idea. the disclaimer is that none of this is based in my lived reality with the exception of the very first line that i once said in response to a question someone asked me under very different and far less complicated circumstances. so in a way this is both an attempt to fulfill kesey’s invitation to write what i don’t know (see top of this blog) and ebert’s advice to think about what i’ve seen and how it affected me and not fake it. the acts of writing this and then rereading it a few days ago for the first time in nearly a year also echo the truisms about writing that some readers have generously noted in their comments on this blog, including writing as retreat, as source of both pain and elation.

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Part 1

“What would you do if I said yes?”

I hadn’t rehearsed the line; it just came out.

I hadn’t planned on lying to her, so i guess this was just penance. Just penance indeed. It didn’t seem fair that she would get her way again, so what could i do but lie.

Was it a lie if half of it was true? And more importantly, why had I felt l couldn’t tell her the truth.  Or, perhaps more momentously, that I could even bring myself offer some of the truth?

We hadn’t always had the best relationship, my mother and I.  I usually couldn’t go two days without thinking about something awful she had done — some social crime or faux pas she had committed — that I was still cleaning up today.  The lime green dress she had worn to my best friend’s father’s funeral when I was twelve. Her insistence on accompanying me to my after-school program that was only a short, ten block walk from my school, and then complaining that she had to leave work early to do it.  The birthday parties she threw for me, despite my protests, with wildly inappropriate games planned: a) what color would your flame be if you were on fire? (the winner was usually the person who could make my mom laugh the most); b) “smell this”, where she had my friends smell what almost always was rotting or moldly food in her fridge to determine both its fate (stay or trash?) and its origin (are you sure this used to be an orange?) – there were no winners for this game; c) pin the tale on the goldfish — there are no words, only memories of innocent fish swimming out of fear of stabbing-by-thumbtack.

So I lied. They weren’t always earth shattering lies.  Just conveniently placed half-truths that allowed the really big whoppers to seem as normal as auburn leaves on a cool, November day.  The first time I lied, I wasn’t sure what I was really doing.  I just knew that it felt good to swear that I had no more M&Ms left to share with her — my mother is diabetic and occasionally needed a quick sugar fix because, of course, she routinely “forgot” to take her pills.  At the age of eight I didn’t have a full grasp of the consequences of sugar highs and insulin lows and vice versa.  But I’m pretty sure I knew I was doing something just a little cruel. And as I watched my mother’s arms flail progressively more rapidly as she tried to keep her concentration on the road in front of her, I felt a rush of warmth wash over me.  I would soon come to be addicted to this sensation — one of power and control over circumstances, another person’s life.

But this isn’t one of those “my mother and I were enemies and now we’re friends” stories.  Nor is it a harrowing tale of the pain and suffering I’ve endured as my mother’s daughter.  No, this is just a retelling, in parts, of a woman on a quest to find her mother. Because surely there’s no way I crawled out of that woman’s vagina.

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Stay tuned for part 2…

the sabbatical bubble

  • what time it is at any given moment during the day
  • the day of the week
  • that the rest of the world is ensconced in meetings/classes/deadlines*
  • proper procedures for various bureaucratic measures that students may email you about**
  • talking animatedly about planning a fifth or sixth excursion as you’re packing for the third can cause frustration in even the most patient of listeners (see earlier bullet about other people’s deadlines)
  • that your spouse has a schedule and deadlines
  • the world does not know, nor does it likely care, that you are on sabbatical, and therefore yes, you do have to pay bills, pull weeds, fix that pesky leak, endure awful music from the neighbors who insist on being home during *your* hours
  • what the rest of your wardrobe looks like outside of three t-shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, and zumba-appropriate workout gear
  • you have time to do all of the french homework, plus pages of unassigned exercises and no, you should not remind the french teacher that she forgot to assign more
  • that just because you blog, doesn’t mean you don’t still have to call your mother

these are some of the things one forgets when one is firmly planted in — or as planted as one could be in the floatiness of — the sabbatical bubble. i think k for giving me this image, so apt in both its ethereal structure — because we know the year will speed by — and for what it suggests about the capacity of bubbles to expand allow in new and strange and unexpected elements.

the danger, of course, is twofold: a) annoying your friends with talk that is overly floaty, philosophical, and on the order of endless ruminations and musings — although truth be told, i am afflicted with this trait even outside of the bubble, leading me to believe this is where i truly want to dwell…; and b) in embodying this sabbatical way of being, that you do not also develop a way of retaining and sustaining certain sabbatical practices beyond the scope of this precious time. in other words, how to make time for play, wonder, musings, and the like on a regular basis without the feelings of guilt (your own or those brought by the “oh my, you have time for that?” comments of others.)

for now, i am loving the bubble and my promise will be to keep the enthusiasm contained and expressed in appropriate forms. perhaps my retreat into silence over the next near-fortnight (for vipassana meditation, not punishment or anything so salacious) will help to quiet the nervous energy and help channel it into the kind that can be helpful and not just be seen as “that nut over there.”

*you can’t fully escape deadlines, no matter how hard you try to keep a low profile. darn those prior commitments!
** ok, i never know what these are, so this is less a factor of the bubble and more just a character flaw…

tx for thxthxthx

dear a,

thanks for reminding about the very wonderful site alreadypretty, which i had forgotten to check out for a while. your reminder came at the exact right time because i learned of another fantastic site from today’s post: thxthxthx – a thank you note a day. such a simple, fantastic, humble, and appreciative idea. for your uncanny sense of timing, i am ever grateful.

xo,
sos

writing lives

  • 3 musketeers bars and the hypnotic bass beat of “every breath you take”
  • new year’s eve and an evening of cole porter tunes
  • a good book and ready access to google and wikipedia for the all important insta-reference searches
  • fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil
  • heck, any melange of tomato, cheese, and grain-based substrate (tortillas, crusty baguette, magical bread that a nearby cafe brings in from a bakery in germantown)
  • year-round ceiling fan and a thick blanket
  • slightly runny eggs and toasted multigrain bread with raspberry jam
  • sparkling conversation and hot tea with honey
  • ice cream and ice water

with one exception, i still indulge in all of these combinations of things/foods/experiences with regularity. i’ve long been fascinated by how things combine — not just foods and ideas, certainly those are elevated on my radar, but also items of clothing (as worn by others mostly and less on me), gestures, images, people, furniture, sounds… more recently, as perhaps recent posts might suggest, the determinism that accompanies some combinations continues to hold my attention, especially as they become entrenched in our social consciousness and can come to have a profound impact on daily actions and interactions as combinations become labels become intractable indictments — but that is not the point of this post. i’m not yet sure what the point is, but i know that for the moment, i want to focus on something other than the social ills of labeling and categorizing and stuart hall’s multimedia treatise on race and the insidiousness of an ethos of “matter out of place.”

there is another combination that i have long enjoyed that has been absent in the pop culture landscape for over twelve years now, and that is the pairing of gene siskel and roger ebert. this may seem like an odd segue to the original odd couple of movie review and film criticism royalty, but the atlantic’s recent article about a new book by the prolific roger ebert, life itself, brought back my memories of watching the two men bickering on the movie balcony stage set. in an earlier post i quoted from an everlasting meal in which tamar adler makes a simple observation: we all need a little seasoning to be most ourselves. and even though ebert is astute and critical and witty on his own, i enjoy thinking about how siskel coaxed out of his balcony buddy some musings and observations that might have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or a different direction altogether. ebert said as much in an interview last year. (how many more examples of learning as social do we need before schools listen? sigh…)

but that is not the point of this post, either. it is, i think, found in a quote that the atlantic excerpted from life itself in which roger ebert is reflecting on being asked to review the film persona:

On writing about “impenetrable” art“In 1967, new in my job at the Sun-Times, I walked into the Clark Theater and saw Persona. I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simply description: ‘At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms the screen into blinding white. This is light projected through film onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.’ And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.”

those last two lines sound like they are shouting to everyone who has ever attempted to utter or pen a single word. how can we write truthfully? that isn’t to say that we don’t embellish or invent or imagine fantastic tales of impossibility, but, like the pair note in clip about back to the future 2 to which i linked, how might retain in our writing perhaps a nugget of that which offers moments of connection and a glimpse of recognition for the reader. they ought to talk more about writing alienation (read: boring your readers!) and less about the five paragraph essay (which can certainly induce writing alienation). how do we move from faking it — in our letters to family, cover letters for jobs, personal statements for tenure, field notes academic articles, policy statements that are filled with assumptions and pairings to which even the most attila-the-hunnish among us wouldn’t adhere — to writing as offering, writing as work in the world.

here’s another choice nugget from ebert, who has suffered through thyroid cancer that left him literally unable to speak audibly with his voice, but as he writing continues to demonstrate, he continues to talk with his audience:

On why writing matters to him now“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

ebert’s reflections remind me of andre aciman — another writer like w.g. sebald whose words literally transport you to another world with a quiet steadiness, at once gentle and jarring descriptions, astute yet painful allegory –who seems to practice as well as embody this studied and steady ethos of being present in one’s writing, trusting one’s memory, moving simply through ideas (but not necessarily without complexity of relationships between those ideas) — recalling one’s first memory of lavender for example (see this video of aciman on writing, the lavender reference is at the 4′ minute mark). i think perhaps what these and many other writers, whose writing is available in the form of published texts as well as blogs and interviews, overwhelmingly advocate is a practice of writing itself as a start to writing. just write.* even if it’s crap. even if what you write on sunday is long gone by the time you write a conclusion on friday. of this anne lamott’s musing in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life are particularly insightful:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well go ahead and get started.

in the ever present and ongoing existential crisis quandary in which i find myself, i wonder if perhaps there are other questions we might ask of ourselves and one another (instead of the ones we often pose to kids and derivatives of which we ask during polite cocktail part small talk: What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live?):  how did you write your life today? which page of your story did you work on this afternoon? with whom are you spending time? with whose words and ideas and actions do you resonate, disagree, find joy? how are you living your life?
(i know, i know: i’m not getting invited to any parties any time soon. but i swear i like to wax on about my collection of boots and latest teen angst tv discoveries, too!)

ebert’s implication that what may be more important than the actual writing is where and to whom the writing may take you is a lovely and fulfilling thought. [insert flood of memories of reading and writing and conversations about readings and writings here…] and so perhaps ebert’s title is apt as suggestive of another lasting combination:

writing and life, itself.

*despite this recent spurt of obsessive blogging, writing the lives of others — which encompasses a great deal of my writing todo list — continues to paralyze especially as the desire to write justly and without freezing the dynamic realities of people’s life narratives rings loudly in my ears. and so perhaps writing this post and reading ebert’s book is an attempt to take some of that good advice myself.

why write, and why this much?

maybe it’s because someone — many someones — told me there would be a dip productivity in post-tenure and im trying to capture whatever comes out whenever it chooses to do so for fear that it’ll be nothing but crickets and the sound of bad tv in the background (upcoming silent retreat aside)
or
because a semi-anonymous space to dump out and try out words is definitely less threatening than the alternative of public, over-evaluated writing that has been my reality of late. (besides, no one knows im really a dog pawing away at the keyboard.)
or
it may be that i have kept just so many thoughts in check for so long for the purposes of focusing and being productive that given the chance to breath, even just a little bit, they rush forth like over-excited cannon balls
or
perhaps, like suzi and sebald*, i simply can’t help myself.

writing mystifies… i wonder whether other modes of communication have a similar pull (hint: the answer is not no)…

* in the la times obituary of this writer, who came into his writerly identity later in life and died much too soon, the following is noted about sebald feeling compelled to write:
“I found a patch of my own,” Sebald told Reynolds. “It was a kind of therapy, self-therapy. I never thought it would take over, but you write one thing, and then you feel compelled to write another. It’s a kind of compulsive disorder.”
” Writing is quite painful,” he added. “There’s the odd chapter I can do in my sleep, but for the most part, I grind away with dogged persistence.”
i only became familiar with this writer in the past year, but each time i think of his death — and perhaps especially as i continue to live with his words, both in his composed fiction and in his responses during interviews and other dialogues — my throat tightens up and i feel the warm embrace of a strangely generous melancholia.

learning to look behind the shadows

Why it is that we — humans, adults, academics, Americans, citizens of the world, all of the above — forget that this, all of this, is not only a game but also completely made up. I said as much to a class of mostly early-twenties (I’m guessing, based on their pop references, social media proclivities and digital histories) graduate students during a class discussion this past spring.  We were broadly discussing the seemingly blind adherence to policies and the oppressive weight of testing that binds teachers’ hands and risk-taking inclinations. I wanted to get us/them out of this potentially-lemming-like complacency so I blurted out, “it’s all made up!” and I was referring to the classroom where we sat, the fact that they subject themselves to being formally evaluated by me at the of the term even as we spent most of the term engaged in collective endeavors, even the fact that we were all complicit in maintaining the discursive practices that uphold the very policies and systems that seem to bind our hands – at the end of my unplanned albeit gentle rant I was facing a sea of slightly frightened faces. I think I had freaked them out just a little bit. But at what point does the moment cease to be ever in service of the next moment? The rhetoric of “doing well” has launched me into a new phase of my existential crisis quandary: we are told to perform well in primary school to pave a smooth way in secondary school; excel in secondary school in order to gain entry to college; do college well in order to graduate with employment in hand; exceed expectations on evaluations* to get promoted to get a raise, and then another; acquire and accumulate — things, money, assets, social networks, status, power, influence; retire and, before you die, leave your offspring better off than when you were their age. Is it possible, at this point in human history with so much so deeply embedded in the fabric of being human, to imagine schooling that is not solely premised on social mobility?

When I recalled this story to a student the other day, she immediately blurted out, “It’s like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave!” Not being a Plato scholar, and only having read The Republic once and not very recently, I had to refresh my memory — luckily Amazon has made this text and many other books deemed to be in the public domain freely available for the Kindle app and a quick search brought it all back. And so, in Book VII of The Republic appear the following words in an exchange between Socrates and Glaucon:

Glaucon: “How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”

Wherein Socrates responds a few speech turns later: “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.”**

In urging for a peeling back of the curtain I am not advocating what most fear at first whiff of this sort of chatter: anarchy. I am not an anarchist nor do I think an unexamined approach of anger and destruction toward the social world (which is unfortunately what anarchist derivatives descend into) is right or good. Although I do enjoy a healthy bit of chaos that keeps us free from lapsing into complacency. Frankly, I blame (thank) my parents who took it upon themselves to give me, as my first book, an encyclopedic volume titled, “Tell Me Why.” The seeds planted in the pages of that seemingly innocuous book were especially volatile – I began reading my world through the lens of why.

I also wonder, like the Fresno superintendent who recently turned down his usual salary for the next three years in order to put most of the money toward early childhood education, “How much do we need to keep accumulating?” Such a question seems verboten in a social landscape of Bigger.Better.Faster.More. Why is life in a big house and all its social, discursive, cultural, economic trappings deemed qualitatively better and thus a greater source of educational motivation than other dwellings, ways of living, being? And why, oh why, do there continue to be posters of “cars, mansions, and money” lining the hallways of schools? Why do we keep glorifying the image of a  “better, richer, and happier life?” (my emphasis). Just because cultivating one’s sense of flourishing and intrinsic motivation is difficult, we shouldn’t cede this job to the idol/idle worship of extrinsic motivation. Has the financial crisis taught us nothing?

This existential crisis quandary of mine has been endured by family and friends, alike, and I am thankful they haven’t cut me out of their lives (yet!). The Plato reference and others like it, both temporally and spatially vast, give me pause and, perhaps ironically, great hope. If there have always been humans who have wondered about the fallacy of social life, and yet there have always continued to be those whose entire identities have been based on upholding, strengthening and broadening the reach of the naked emperor, it is oddly reassuring on the one hand to feel support across space and time for this less popular narrative. On the other, conventions of social mobility as *the* driving force for our social institutions, and especially schools, not only continues to distress me but is actually detracting from the tremendous potential schools hold as sites of meaningful engagement now and not just for the meaningful engagement they can serve as prep areas.

Perhaps Muriel Barberry has an answer and she brings it to us in the mind’s eye of a curious if somewhat precocious 12-year-old girl living with her bourgeois family in an upscale apartment building who befriends the building superintendent in whom she finds a kindred spirit: both are struggling with the notion that they are not what the world so desperately wants them to be, with their contradictory aspirations, practices, and ways of interacting and imagining (or not).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is full of much more nuance than I have allowed in this brief note, so while I continue to think about it I’ll leave you with two delicious clips from the film adaptation that delighted me equally (and made me newly appreciate the Oscar category of “adapted screenplay” – truly hard stuff to do well!)

The meeting of Mme. Michel and M. Ozu (who could not love a Tolstoy reference? Especially as it transpires between these 2 characters.)

Paloma filming Mme. Michel (ah, Paloma. She is charmant and, through her unassuming curiosity, coaxes out the charm in Mme. Michel.)

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* When I was a postdoc, I had the opportunity to sit in on course taught by a colleague who until that point I had known only as a co-author of a text that moved me out of my own complacent funk as a graduate student — for the ways it spoke to the thoughts that had not yet emerged from the recesses of my mind and the groundwork it laid for much of the ways of working and thinking and seeing in which I engage now.
** The slightly longer excerpt of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon:
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.